Notes on Pronunciation

Syllables

Japanese syllables are constructed in the following four ways.

  • a vowel (a, i, u, e, o)
  • a consonant + a vowel (62 combinations)
  • a consonant alone (n, t, s, k, p)
  • a consonant + y + a vowel (33 combinations)

The chart below shows all the syllables in Japanese.

k

g

s

z

t

d

n

h

p

b

m

y

r

w

a

ka

ga

sa

za

ta

da

na

ha

pa

ba

ma

ya

ra

wa

i

ki

gi

shi

ji

chi

ji

ni

hi

pi

bi

mi

ri

u

ku

gu

su

zu

tsu

zu

nu

fu

pu

bu

mu

yu

ru

e

ke

ge

se

ze

te

de

ne

he

pe

be

me

re

o

ko

go

so

zo

to

do

no

ho

po

bo

mo

yo

ro

kya

gya

sha

ja

cha

nya

hya

pya

bya

mya

rya

kyu

gyu

shu

ju

chu

nyu

hyu

pyu

byu

myu

ryu

kyo

gyo

sho

jo

cho

nyo

hyo

pyo

byo

myo

ryo

Table 1. Syllables in Japanese

Note the following special cases marked with emphasis in the chart:

/s+i/ is pronounced /shi/

/z+i/ is pronounced /ji/

/t+i/ is pronounced /chi/

/t+u/ is pronounced /tsu/

/d+i/ is pronounced /ji/

/d+u/ is pronounced /zu/

Long Vowels

There are five long vowels in Japanese: /aa/, /ii/, /uu/, /ee/, and /oo/. They are “long” in terms of spoken duration. In the writing system, the long versions of /a/, /i/, and /u/ are recognized as the same sound: /aa/, /ii/, /uu/. But the long version of /o/ (with certain exceptions) is represented by /ou/ and the long version of /e/ (with certain exceptions) is written as /ei/.

Long Consonants

The consonants /t/, /s/, /k/, and /p/ can be long. When these consonants constitute an entire syllable without a vowel, they are not pronounced but take a full syllable length.

  • 6 syllables: i-t-te ki-ma-su‘I’m leaving.’
  • 3 syllables: I-p-pon‘one long thing’

3 syllables: I-k-ko‘one round thing’

  • 3 syllables: i-s-sho‘together’

The consonant /n/ can take up an entire syllable by itself, as in konnichiwa’ hello’ (5 syllables: ko-n-ni-chi-wa).

Pitch Accent

As you listen to Japanese, you will notice rises and falls in pitch. Pitch can change from syllable to syllable in order to distinguish meaning. For example, there is a fall in pitch in hai ‘yes’, while there is a rise in hai ‘ash’. The difference in pitch pattern distinguishes these two words. This is called pitch accent.

HAi ‘yes’

haI ‘ash’ (The high pitch is indicated by the capital and emphasis.)

On the other hand, in English a difference in loudness serves this function. This is called stress accent. Compare the following.

INsult (noun)

inSULT (verb)(The loud syllable is indicated by the capital and emphasis.)

All Japanese words have one of the following pitch patterns:

Fall: JAa ‘well then’

DOumo ‘thanks’

DOuzo ‘go ahead’

Rise: iIE ‘no’

saYONARA ‘good bye’

taDAIMA ‘I’m home’

oHAYOU ‘good morning’

yoROSHIKU ‘Nice to meet you’

Rise and Fall:

aRIgatou ‘thanks’

shiTSUrei-shimasu ‘Excuse me’ suMIMASEn ‘Sorry’

If a word has only one syllable, a fall or a rise occurs with the following word.

HA desu. ‘It’s a tooth.’ ha DEsu. ‘It’s a leaf.’

A note on the cultural significance of pitch is in order. As you learn Japanese, pay attention to pitch at the sentence level as well as the word level. A slight change in pitch may indicate a subtle but significant change in meaning or mood. It is observed in many, if not all, languages that speakers tend to raise their pitch when talking to babies or when trying to sound gentle. Japanese is no exception in this regard. Talking in a high pitch is generally associated with politeness in Japanese. Women tend to talk in a higher pitch, but regardless of the gender, sales and customer service personnel, receptionists, waiters, etc. speak in overall higher pitch. Remember that when something is the norm and expected in a culture and you don’t follow it, you may be sending a certain message inadvertently. Just to be safe, bow, smile, and talk gently.

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